A lot dotted with large oaks near the flightline at Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort will soon be home to a $70-million training complex for Marine Corps pilots expected to fly the new Joint Strike Fighter.
More than 75 people gathered near the lot Thursday to watch military and local officials don hard-hats and scoop shovelfuls of dirt to commemorate the start of construction on a 60,000-square-foot hangar and the 101,000-square-foot center where 78 pilots will be trained each year.
Navy officials tapped Florida contractor Hensel Phelps for the construction, expected to be completed by September 2013.
Kirk Hazen, vice president of Hensel Phelps, said the company is looking forward to starting the work and possibly bidding on future projects related to the JSF's expected arrival in 2014.
"Our goal is to come here and make sure, when we're done, the base has the highest quality hangar and training facility," Hazen said. "The budget and the schedule will be met. We plan to move in and be part of this community."
Maj. Gen. Jon Davis, commander of the 2nd Air Wing, said Thursday's ceremony was a watershed moment for the air station and its relationship with the civilian community.
"This is a historic day for Beaufort and a historic day for our Corps," Davis said. "I'm really proud of Beaufort. You've been supportive of the military, and you know the importance of this, not only for the Lowcountry but for our nation. You've earned this."
In December, the Navy announced its decision to base three new active-duty JSF squadrons and two pilot-training squadrons at the air station.
The $70-million project is the start of a $351.8-million makeover the air station will undergo over the next five years to house the JSF, which will replace the F-18 Hornets now flown at the base.
Navy officials have said they expect to begin soliciting bids later this year or early next for a $21-million project to build a vertical landing pad at the air station. The pad would be used to practice the new jets' vertical takeoff and landing capabilities.
Air station commanding officer Col. Brian Murtha said upcoming construction projects will not only prepare the base for the JSF's arrival but also replace aging infrastructure.
"In just a few short years, MCAS Beaufort will be the home to the most state-of-the-art training complex for the Marine Corps' next-generation war-fighter, and we'll have the finest hangars to house those aircraft," Murtha said. "As ... the Marine Corps' first stealth aircraft, the JSF will require resources much more advanced than our current pre-Vietnam era hangars and buildings, which we've maintained well beyond their life expectancy."
Follow reporter Patrick Donohue at twitter.com/OnBaseBeaufort.